Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Learning from Debra Samuels, Author of My Japanese Table

After I read and cooked from My Japanese Table, I knew I wanted to talk to author Debra Samuels. Not only had I read her work for years in the Boston Globe, but her voice was so warm and genuine in the cookbook. In our hour long phone conversation we talked about our sons, cooking for children, the joy of Japanese food, the impact of the earthquake and about writing.

On Writing My Japanese Table: Ms. Samuels has been going to Japan for almost 40 years.  The more she learned and understood the food and culture, the more she wanted to learn how to cook it at home. In many ways, this book is the result of her trips to Japan, through the generosity of friends who shared recipes with her, and through practice teaching in Boston.

On Writing a Cookbook: My Japanese Table is Ms. Samuels’ second book.  She noted that there is more freedom as an author to write an ethnic cookbook then writing in a mainstream newspaper. Why? Because, as she noted, “an editor is pretty vigilant about a person having to buy so many esoteric things.”  However, she also noted that she tried to use ingredients that were accessible to most cooks. She also made sure to use unusual ingredients in multiple recipes.  The herb, shisho was the main exception to her rule because she loves it so much (and it grows abundantly in her backyard.)  

On Writing:  Ms. Samuels highlighted a few tips that have helped her to grow as a writer. First, she uses the Pomodoro method which she explained as writing straight for 25 minutes without stopping. Yet she also noted that she regularly throws out about 50% of what she writes!  She tries not to look at subjects that other people have written about because “there is just so much original work you can do on the same subject.” Finally, she noted that the toughest editors are often the best teachers. In her case she said that they helped her to learn how to “tighten" her writing and to use “descriptors in a way that conveys what you want.”  

On Suggestions for Japanese Stores, Restaurants and Ingredients: Ms. Samuels recommended Ebisuya in Medford or New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge for fish. She also pointed me to the new (and fabulous) store, Miso Market which opened in Porter Square. It is an adorable shop, filled with a wonderful assortment of organic and microbiotic products.  They had a diverse selection of soy sauce, seaweed, rice and a very helpful staff. Other sources for Japanese ingredients include the Japan Village Mart in Brookline Village or Sakanaya in Allston. She suggested approaching these stores, or a larger store like H-Mart with a cookbook that lists ingredients. She also steered me towards the Asian Market Shopper. This app makes it easier to shop at stores where ingredients may not be listed in English. Although she more typically prepares Japanese food at home then eating out, she did note that she enjoyed the restaurant Shiki in Brookline.

On Sushi: I spoke to Ms. Samuels in August, prior to an alarming Boston Globe report about the fish industry in Massachusetts. However, even then she noted that she typically bought fish for sushi at Ebisoya or New Deal.  I was fascinated by the fact that she prefers to buy superfrozen (as opposed to fresh) fish as it is safer.

On Preparing for Children: One of my favorite sections of her book was on O’Bento.  Bento are Japanese lunch boxes as well as a style of preparing food. Ms. Samuels noted that bento are wonderful for children.  I knew immediately that both my sons would be drawn to the fact that with Bento they could get both variety and have all their food separately. (They are young children after all!)  While she offers a lovely and detailed section with images in the book, she highlighted a few things in our conversation. First, that the best way to tackle Bento is to use Sundays to make a variety of staple foods that can last the week. For example, by taking the time to cut cheese in cubes, cooking corn and pasta, you can create multiple dishes that can be mixed and matched over the week.  One day those items could be on a salad while another day they could be separate. She was also a fan of cooking mini-meatloaves in little silicone cups. She noted that they could be frozen and then placed right in a Bento box. By lunch, they would be defrosted!  She also emphasized that fresh vegetables such as tomatoes or edamade provided color and nutrition.  The delicious yakisoba recipe in her book can be served cold (as long as you leave out the pork).  However, she pointed out that some Bentos boxes themselves have multiple layers to keep hot food hot and cold food cold. For a fabulous visual (direct from her book), you can go to her blog post on Bento Boxes here.  Bento boxes themselves are now widely available everywhere from H-Mart to Amazon.

On Her: To learn more from Debra Samuels grab one of her two cookbooks (which would also make wonderful holiday presents!) She has written My Japanese Table and The Korean Table  Her website, Cooking at Debra's, offers a wealth of information full of recipes, articles, pictures and lessons.

A few last points. First, a thank you to Ms. Samuels for taking the time to talk. More importantly, an apology to her for the prolonged delay in this post. That being said, if you haven't done so already, buy My Japanese Table. I am turning to it more and more frequently. The recipes are absolutely delicious, but yet, healthy enough to be able to take one more helping of miso-glazed eggplant or that wonderful yakisoba!

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